When Kung Fu Panda came out three years ago, it was greeted with a special kind of enthusiasm beyond what it altogether deserved: for this was not just a perfectly fun talking animal comedy, it was the film that finally, after so many years, proved that DreamWorks Animation could make a good movie (or, if you want to be exceptionally generous and forgiving, a good movie other than the first two Shreks). That was, of course, before How to Train Your Dragon came out, which renders the whole "Kung Fu Panda is good on account of not being shitty" argument a little bit toothless.

It's still a charming watch that goes down very easy, mind you, and it now turns out that Kung Fu Panda 2, freed from the burden of being sequel to the best movie DreamWorks Animation has ever produced, is much the same. I would be inclined to say that I like the two movies to an almost exactly identical degree, though for entirely different reasons; perhaps surprisingly and perhaps not (though so many Shrek the Thirds and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africas lead me towards "surprisingly") KFP2 is free, or nearly so, from the sin of re-treading. No forced attempts to reset the characters to zero, the plot is completely different from the original, as are the great majority of the jokes; hell, you might almost think, if this wasn't a big studio tentpole, that the people who created it had made a good-faith effort to creatively answer the question, "Where might these characters go forward from where we saw them last?"

Where we saw them last, if you need the refresher, was on a mountain high in medieval China, where overweight, fanboyish panda Po (Jack Black) had just fulfilled his destiny to become the legendary Dragon Warrior, and was now a proud member of the finest kung fu temple in the land, training alongside his heroes under red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Now it's a little while later, and Po has become fully a part of the team that once viewed him as weak and stupid: the five kung fu masters Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan).

In due course, a psychotic peacock, disgraced son of lord, Shen (Gary Oldman, outstanding) returns for the first time after his banishment many long years ago - a banishment inflicted upon him for the crime of murdering a village of pandas, having been told by a goat soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh, giving what is, no kidding, her best performance in an English-language movie) that a "black and white warrior" would seal his doom, and now you have quite enough to go on. Shen's particular scheme involves stealing all the metal in China to forge into cannons, thereby corrupting the gift his ancestors gave to the world of gunpowder, which they only ever used for fireworks; it is an invention that no kung fu can protect against, and the bulk of the movie thus follows Po's attempt to find inner peace and invent a new form of kung fu, and that process involves him learning where he came from and how he came to be adopted by a doting goose, Mr. Ping (James Hong). And, since he naturally enough came from the wreck of that same panda village, everything ties up nicely and the circle of life spins on.

Relative to the original film, KFP2 is tweaked here and there without being manifestly different. It is darker (panda genocide!), it is more sentimental (all that gooey bonding between Po and Ping! and between Po and Tigress!), and the biggest and most important change of all, by far, is that the balance of comedy to martial arts has lunged away from comedy and towards action (very possibly a side-effect of the fact that the new director, Jennifer Yuh, previously directed the fight sequences in the original Kung Fu Panda). This is kind of all right, as it turns out: one of the most unexpected traits of the previous film was that it was a kung fu comedy, but emphatically not a kung fu parody: for all its toy-friendly anthropomorphic animals, it was quite sincere in its affection for the subgenre, as knowing in its deployment of tropes as Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and just as enthusiastic about it.

Blow me down if KFP2 isn't a pretty fine kung fu movie, when all is said and done: carefully sanitised for your child's protection, obviously, but Yuh stages some wholly exciting battle sequences, making good use of the fact that in animation, you can put the camera wherever you damn well want, and you can have your characters do things that physics don't quite allow for; at any rate the shifting back and forth between wide angles and close-ups, with the judicious use of slow-motion, lends the fights in KFP2 a kinetic excellence not customarily found in much of our contemporary action cinema. If the film is the best American martial arts movie in years, that has a lot to do with the almost complete lack of any competition; but as far as a '70s chopsocky film for wee folk in the 2010s, this is pretty fun stuff.

And boy, does it ever look dramatic. Even despite the exquisiteness of the design in How to Train Your Dragon, I'd yet maintained that Kung Fu Panda was the finest of DreamWorks's films, visually; its sequel has outdone it. If for no reason other than its lighting effects, this would be an absolute treat, visually; a sequence of the six heroes racing along a crumbling tower as bright red projectiles fly at them in the gathering dusk, seen briefly in the film's trailer, look as beautiful as anything I expect to see in an animated picture this year; it is matched throughout by a depiction of China that recaptures the slightly diffused, oil-painting feel of the original, but with the benefit of three-years-newer software.

And that's to say nothing of its 2-D sequences; continuing upon the precedent set by the original, the opening scene is a small miracle of translucent shadow-puppetry (faked in a computer no doubt, but still), and it looks as far from any norm of American animation as you could hope to see; meanwhile, Po's fragmentary memories of the destruction of the panda village are shown in simple but lovely cel-style animation, which in a neat twist turns into CG animation the moment that the memories become more concrete and definite. It's a little touch, as things go, but proof enough that this movie was not made by hacks, however mercenary its origins.

As for the script, written like the first by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger; there is little to say. Once again, the humor is derived largely from the spectacle of a panda in medieval China spouting off like an Ain't It Cool contributor, with Jack Black's easily-riled voice behind it; once again, the characters are simple but likable, easily reduced to one or two characteristics. The differences are, again, mostly a matter of focus: in the supporting cast, Tigress is given far more attention, Mantis quite a bit less, and Crane, Viper, and Monkey are significantly less important than they were before. As for Hoffman's Shifu; after finding the character, or rather the actor, distracting as all hell the first time I saw the first movie, a subsequent viewing made me appreciate him quite a lot, and thus it's disappointing that he's reduced to little more than a cameo.

But really, this is in all ways a completely appropriate follow-up, insofar as a second Kung Fu Panda really needs to exist; fun and funny, sweet without being sappy, gorgeous, easily digested and forgotten about. High art it's not, but as sequels go, we'll be lucky if there's more than another one or two as casually successful as this for the rest of the summer.

Reviews in this series
Kung Fu Panda (Osborne & Stevenson, 2008)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Yuh, 2011)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Yuh & Carloni, 2016)